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Advice to Youth

by David Magie, Published by the American Tract Society in 1855.


I could hardly do any youth a better service, than to recommend to him the frequent and careful study of the Book of Proverbs. For pith, and force, and comprehensiveness, Solomon has had no equal, in any age or country. This is the man to whom God gave "wisdom and understanding exceeding much, and largeness of heart, even as the sand that is on the seashore."

Among the many sayings of the wise man adapted to those in early life, let me dwell a little upon one of pre-eminent importance. "Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not unto your own understanding." Here is a sovereign antidote to two of the evils to which young men are often exposed—timidity on the one hand, and presumption on the other. Only pursue your course safely between these perils, and we shall see you in due time, reaching the desired haven in peace.

What Solomon would inculcate upon youth, in this striking passage, is a continual dependence on the word and providence of God. You may exert your powers, and put forth your efforts, but you must not rely upon them. An entire submission to the will and ways of the Most High, joined to a deep distrust of your own wisdom and prudence, is what your condition demands.

The words apply to practice, as well as faith—to the course you should pursue, as well as to the creed you should adopt. In both these respects you are in danger either of self-confidence, or despondency. Every youth in the land needs to be stimulated to earnest and persevering exertion, but then he equally needs to know that the way of man is not in himself. If he can be set right, and kept right in these two particulars, eventual success is almost certain.

But why is it unsafe for men to lean unto their own understanding? It is so because of the limited capacities of the human mind. The knowledge, gained by the wisest of men, however diligent and successful they may have been, is confined within a comparatively small compass. How little, after all, do they comprehend of the operations of nature, or the mysteries of Providence? A very few steps take them beyond their depth. Wonderful as were the discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, he seemed to himself merely to have been walking along the shore, and picking up now and then a shining pebble—while the vast treasures of the ocean still lay unexplored before him. Such a sentiment from the lips of such a man, ought to have weight. Let pretenders boast as they may, true science is invariably modest. It is only the superficial thinker, the man with a bare smattering of knowledge, one that has simply tasted of the ethereal spring, that deems himself to be very wise.

Is proof of this demanded? You may find it in the well-established fact, that men of the clearest minds, and most solid attainments, are generally the most ready to admit the weakness of their own understanding. Ripe and thorough scholars are seldom self-confident. Humility is the constant attendant of true wisdom. Mark how patiently such people listen to others, with what modesty they give their own opinions, and how slowly they come to fixed and definite conclusions. Especially are they backward to reject that which has the sanction of age, and the recommendation of usefulness. Never do they adopt new notions on any topic of interest for the sake of being singular, or with a view of evincing their superiority to the decisions of days gone by. They have too much good sense to break loose from what is settled, and run after the thousand vagaries afloat in the world. It is of no avail to tell them, that this strange thing and the other strange thing is exciting attention, and making proselytes, unless it coincides with the lessons of the Bible, and of experience. You do not see them "carried about by every wind of doctrine."

Well do they know, that to confide in their own reasonings, on the great questions which relate to God, and pardon, and eternity, would be but to follow a false light. Men of deep reflection, and really logical minds cannot thus become the dupes of their own imbecility. What they have as yet traversed of the vast fields of knowledge, bears so small a proportion to what still lies before them, that they feel more like learning than teaching.

What a contrast this with the conduct of those, who merely skim the surface of things! Never examining any important subject with sufficient care to see its real difficulties, or grapple with them, they naturally enough become talkative and opinionated. There is but little in their minds at all, and that little lies so entirely on the top, that it runs off without an effort. A fuller vessel would be less fluent. The world abounds with such folks, and they are the very people who are ready to overturn the pillars on which society has been resting for centuries. Puffed up with a vain conceit of their own wisdom, they feel themselves equal to any task. It would really seem as if they were wise enough in their own eyes to renounce all the teachings of the past, and cast everything into a new mold. But such a course never ends well. It is that sort of leaning unto one's own understanding which is almost sure, sooner or later, to involve an utter departure from the right path.

Again, men are liable to prejudice. Where can you find an individual whose opinions on the most vital topics are not somewhat influenced by his feelings and wishes? There is, even in the most candid and ingenuous, some sort of bias in the mind, which must be resisted, or it will mislead. Be on your guard as you may, you will not infrequently detect yourselves in pursuing a given course, more because it is pleasing—than because it is right. It is what is felt to be agreeable, rather than what is known to be proper, which decides the case. Opinions are embraced, and courses of conduct persisted in every day, on the simple ground that the heart loves them—and not that the judgment approves of them. How hard it is to see things in a just light, when duty leads in one direction, and inclination in another.

This, allow me to say, is one main reason why the Bible is so often rejected. Could you get behind what is open and palpable, and examine the secret springs of action, you would find that skeptical opinions generally have their origin in inward depravity. The state of the heart determines the decisions of the judgment. Free-thinking, in a great majority of instances, is the result of free-living. So hard is it for men to practice one thing and believe another, that you will by and by see them making shift to suit the articles of their creed to the habits of their life. This is so natural that multitudes do it, almost unconsciously to themselves. What reason is there for surprise in the fact, that men who love sin, soon come to renounce the authority of the book which contains the sentence of their condemnation? It would be strange were it otherwise. Thousands dislike the Bible for the very same reason that Ahab disliked Micaiah—it "prophesies evil" against them. A known and felt unfitness for heaven, is really the grand argument by which sinful men persuade themselves that there is no hell.

An appeal to facts can scarcely fail to set this matter in its true light. Are men of loose opinions on the subject of religion, men of solemn and earnest inquiry; men of a candid and ingenuous temper; men of useful and virtuous lives? Whatever may be said of individuals, there is no difficulty in learning where they stand as a class. Let them pretend what they may as to liberality and openness to conviction, there are no people in the world so completely encased in prejudice, as those who see no truth in the Bible, and no glory in the character of Christ.

Sad as such a statement is, its truth will hardly be called in question. The word of God has to make its way to the human bosom, through a host of prejudices and biases of the most formidable character. A cold assent to it as a valuable document of antiquity, is of no avail, if you go no further. If received to any saving purpose, it must be received to govern the will, and purify the affections, and regulate the temper, and shape the life. To dress it up in beautiful binding, and give it a place on the parlor table, will not suffice. Its grand aim is to get possession of the heart, and unless dominion be given to it here, its claims to come from God will probably be rejected.

There is a prejudice in the mind which impels it to lean to its own understanding.

Once more, the sentiments and purposes of multitudes are very unsettled. Not a few pass through the world, without ever becoming rooted or grounded in any well-considered opinion, even on the most vital points. Their course from first to last is shaped altogether by circumstances. As for fixed and firmly established principles, in regard to God, and sin, and Christ, and the life to come—they cannot be said to have any whatever. The ideas they entertain on such subjects float loosely in the mind. Nothing is settled, nothing steadfast. Today they are one thing, tomorrow another; and if any single trait of character is confirmed in them, it is a love of perpetual change. We may liken them to a ship at sea without helm or ballast. When the wind blows from one point of the compass they sail before it, and when it shifts they are sure to shift likewise. Unstable as water, how can they excel?

You have often met with people of this vacillating and wavering state of mind. Though they seem to be ever learning, they are never able to come to the knowledge of the truth, or quietly to settle down on any system whatever. A love of novelty keeps them perpetually chasing after this teacher and that, and trying this scheme and that. Instead of believing that arsenic is arsenic, upon the testimony of competent judges, they must needs taste for themselves, though at the hazard of being poisoned. It would be amusing, were not the interests involved so serious, to stand by and witness the thousand chameleon tints which such people assume. One thing only seems certain, and that is, that they are on a declivity, and are descending lower and lower. Jude describes them in truthful, but most alarming language—"they are clouds without water, carried about of winds, trees whose fruit withers, without fruit, twice dead, plucked up by the roots; wandering stars, to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever." What a description of a man, broken loose from truth, and driven about at the mercy of every breeze?

It is the ruin of multitudes, that they have no stability of character. Afraid of the shackles of an early education, they launch forth upon the great and wide sea of human uncertainties, as if there were neither rocks nor shoals. What their fathers and mothers taught them seems tame and lifeless. It pleases them better to turn from the beaten path, though in doing so they are forced out into a wilderness on which no ray of light falls, and where no sure map denotes the course to be pursued. Alas, how much is lost as to peace of mind, and confidence in God, by such a reckless spirit as this! In place of what once seemed fixed, and past dispute, these people find themselves now tormented by a sort of universal uncertainty. It is impossible for them any longer to say what they believe, or where they rest. From leaning unto their own understanding, they have rapidly gone down to the point of having no creed, no hope, no heaven, no God.

Pause here, and consider what has been said in the way of caution. Reflect upon the limited capacities of men, the prejudices which stand in their way, and the instability of their opinions, and you cannot but see reasons why you should not be self-confident.

But there is ENCOURAGEMENT for you as well as caution. This you have in the Divine injunction, "Trust in the Lord with all your heart."

You need guidance from above. If anything is made plain, by the history of the race, and of every individual of that race, it is that a revelation of the will of God is absolutely indispensable. Destitute of the light of the Bible, man has been forever groping in the dark, and must continue forever to grope in the dark. It was on purpose to meet this felt need of the human bosom, that the Most High has condescended to utter his voice, and give forth his oracles. On these blessed pages, all instinct with life, and all luminous with truth, we have a perfect rule of conduct. Instructions are here given, and principles are here laid down, which apply to every variety of case, even though the case itself be not particularly stated. Nothing essential to a complete system of faith, and a correct line of practice, is omitted. This single volume tells us all that we need to believe concerning God, and makes sufficiently obvious every duty that God requires at our hands. No one can wander from the right path, who meekly and honestly takes the Bible as his guide.

It is not pretended that every objection which the wicked heart of man can raise, is answered here in so many words. Men—if determined so to do—may continue to stumble and fall on such questions as—Why was sin permitted to enter our world? Why have the heathen been left in their idolatry? Why are so few who hear the gospel saved by it? They may, if they will, cavil at the incomprehensibility of the doctrine of the Trinity, and the union of divinity and humanity in the one person of Christ. But all this only shows that their proud hearts have never been humbled, and their high looks have never been brought low. On all points which relate to facts, and principles, and actual duties, the Bible is the plainest, and most easily understood book in the world. Only be ready to do the will of God, and you shall know all that need be known of the doctrines which he inculcates.

Will you spurn the light of this lamp of life, merely because you cannot solve every query in regard to the nature and mode of its shining? The book of Creation is in many respects very like the Bible. It is impossible to study them in connection, and not perceive that the pen in both cases was held by the same hand, and that they are equally emanations from the same infinite mind. The two streams flow from one great fountain-head. If the impress of Deity is fixed upon the lofty mountain, and the fruitful valley, and the rolling ocean, it is equally fixed upon the Pentateuch of Moses, the Proverbs of Solomon, and the visions of John. The same Being who formed the earth and clothed it in beauty, has given us the Prophecies, and the Psalms, and the Gospels. But these volumes, though both the product of one all-comprehensive mind, and both intended as the medium through which one undivided power and Godhead should be made known to us, are not equally adapted to inculcate moral duty. It is on the Scriptures, and on the Scriptures alone, that you must rely for direction on all such points. They speak in intelligible and clear terms as to what you should believe, and the course you should pursue.

Only approach them with the humility and simplicity of a little child, and you will find that they shed a most reviving light over all your pathway.

The Bible, to those who feel their need of its guidance, is, for the most part, a very perspicuous and intelligible communication. That difficulties are to be met in this sacred volume, that deep mysteries are brought forward on these inspired pages, is just what might have been expected. The Book would have lacked one proof of its Divine original, had it contained nothing which we cannot "search out unto perfection." But so far as essentials are concerned, its truths are clothed in language of the utmost perspicuity, and brought down to the level of the most untutored intellect. It is emphatically a book for man, consulting his needs, and adapted to his circumstances. Who ever went astray while following its directions? "Only give me," says one, "a Bible and a candle, and though shut up in the deepest dungeon, I can tell you what is going on in the world."

Then too you must depend on God's overruling Providence. Everyone has questions to ask respecting the way he shall take, the plans he shall adopt, and the responsibilities he shall assume, which man can never answer. The mind needs something clearer, stronger, surer to lean upon, and that something the world does not afford. If we turn to our dearest and best friends, they are as much at a loss as ourselves. If we consult the history of other men's lives, we find no solution of our doubts. A path opens on this side, but whether it is a path to walk in, or to shun, is more than mortal man can tell us; and it closes on that, but whether it closes, to turn us in another direction, or to try our patience, none are wise enough to say. We need a power above to mark out our way.

The urgency is great, but, thanks to God, it is not unprovided for. There is an all-disposing Providence rising up before us, like the Star in the East; and if we follow its direction, we shall be led safely in the way. What a privilege to be able to observe such a light, while walking in darkness. To a rightly disposed mind, nothing can be more animating than the thought, that the same God, who created the stars, and marshals the hosts of heaven—notices also a sparrow's fall, and numbers the hairs of our head. Who can say, that he has no one to care for him? If the God in whom he lives, and moves, and has his being, takes a deep interest in his welfare, what needs he more? Let him but feel right, and do right, and all will be well. Temporary embarrassments will do him no eventual harm. If his dependence is on the Mighty God of Jacob, ravens shall bring food, and fish furnish tribute money, sooner than his expectations shall be cut off.

Rely upon it, "the steps of a good man are ordered by the Lord." No audible voice reaches his ears, from the high and holy place, saying, "This is the way—walk in it," but he has in the thousand arrangements made without his agency, and oftentimes contrary to his expectations, all the evidence he needs, that one higher than himself is giving complexion to his life. He finds scarcely anything as he once fondly thought it would be. The place he lives in is not the one which in his childish days he dreamed of, nor is he surrounded by such circumstances as once brightened his anticipations; yet he can say–"God has done all things well." Though clouds and darkness have sometimes been about him, he sees the guidance of a Divine hand almost as distinctly as did the Israelites while making their way to the land of promise.

To all this you must add earnest prayer for direction. If men will ask the help of God, they will not ask in vain. To encourage them to do this, he comes near to them by his word and Spirit, and seeks in a thousand ways to win their confidence. In nothing does he take more delight than in the weak coming to him for strength—and the blind depending upon him for sight—and the wandering directing their eyes to him for guidance. If they will find heart and voice to pray—he will be sure to find an ear to hear, and an arm to save. You may read the annals of the Church from beginning to end, and you will not meet with a solitary instance, in which God hid his face from the supplications of his people. When all other resources failed, this was the refuge to which they could betake themselves with confidence.

"The secret of the Lord is with those who fear him, and he will show them his covenant." Difficulties now and then arise in the history of every individual's life, on which the Bible seems to throw no satisfactory light, and in reference to which the responses of Providence appear to admit of no clear solution. This, though a trying case, is distinctly contemplated and provided for in the Scriptures of truth. "If any man lacks wisdom"—so runs the comprehensive direction, the explicit promise—"if any man lacks wisdom, let him ask it of God, who gives to all men liberally and upbraids not, and it shall be given him." What more could be desired? Such a declaration has a value which belongs not to silver and gold. On the easy condition of going to God with a humble and believing heart, to seek his guidance in the day of perplexity, the pledge of a gracious answer is made; and heaven and earth may pass away before it shall fail. Why then should any one live or die in doubt. That very Being who alone is able to tell you what is good for man, both as a dweller on earth, and a probationer for eternity, has publicly committed himself in reference to this matter, and he will redeem his bond. The word has gone out of his mouth, and cannot be recalled. From the days of Enoch when men began to call upon his name, to the present hour, the promise stands unbroken.

Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and you shall never be ashamed or confounded. If you doubt this, look at Jacob on the plains of Penuel, at David in the cave of Adullam, at Ezra by the river Ahava, at Peter in the house of Simon the tanner, and at Paul and Silas in prison at midnight. Think of the prayers of Edwards in the midst of the revivals at Northampton, of Brainerd among the Indians of the wilderness, and of Martyn on the sands of Persia. These cases all proclaim as with trumpet-tongue that "it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in man"—yes, that "it is better to trust in the Lord than to put confidence in princes." To connect one's cause by prayer with the mercy-seat, is to ensure the best possible success.

Can you then do otherwise, my young friends, than comply with the duty thus enforced? Learn to depend implicitly on the teachings of Divine truth; have an eye to the good providence of God at all times; and be faithful in pouring out your hearts in prayer before him, and you will be led in the right way. God himself invites you to this course, and pursuing it you will never be disappointed.

The bane and antidote are now before you. Lean to your own understanding as you make your way through the world, and nothing but disappointment and sorrow will hang upon your footsteps. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and everything is safe for both earth and heaven. And the one or the other of these things you will certainly do. Counsel you will take of someone, and it will be either of man or God, either of yourselves or your Maker. You need light, and you will seek it from your own candle, or from the Sun of righteousness. Can you hesitate?

O come now, in the bright morning of your being, while the dew of youth is fresh upon you, and put yourselves under the guidance of the word and Spirit of God. Take no step, form no associations, engage in no pursuit, without first turning aside to implore the blessing of the Mighty God of Jacob. Set out in life upon this plan, and follow it steadily from day to day, and I guarantee that the retrospect will occasion you no regret, in the hour when flesh and heart must fail. Put yourselves under the care of a covenant-keeping God, and he will "guide you by his counsel, and afterwards receive you to glory."

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